Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell combine sweet harmonies, thought-provoking lyrics, and synthetic, heartbeat-like rhythms to form the unique folktronic sounds of Overcoats. While the band was born at Wesleyan University, the duo has taken on several states, cities, and international venues, including New York, London, Dublin, and the NPR Mountain Stage — they’re also set to perform at SXSW this week! On Saturday I was able to attend their last show in New York (before heading off to Texas), where they performed and produced their own electronics live for the first time. Needless to say, the anticipation was exhilarating, the beats were genuine and dynamic, the harmonies were expressive and soulful and the excitement was palpable. Get to know more about the musicians behind Overcoats and their thoughts on their latest release, Nighttime Hunger.
Natasha: For those who haven’t heard yet, would you like to start with how Overcoats came to be?
JJ: It all started in the bleak mid winter of 2014-15 [giggles] of our senior year at Wesleyan…
Hana: But we had been friends for 5 years and had sung together for a while. It really started in our friendship and our empathy for what the other was going through. And I hadn’t done [writing] in this way before.
JJ: And neither had I. It’s hard to write original music, especially with another person; but I think it was a leap of faith. I can’t remember what happened exactly –I think we were each trying to let go of someone and so we had this parallel experience we wanted to write about.
Natasha: What was the moment you realized you wanted to pursue this project further and as a plausible career?
Hana: I think the fact that strangers were listening and liking things — we liked the idea that somebody who didn’t know us could empathize with what we were saying or have the same experience. It gave us a way to expand our worlds.
JJ: Yeah, take The Fog (the third song off our EP), which we wrote at Wesleyan: it’s about experiencing sexism while we were there. And then a month ago, this girl we don’t know commented on one of our Instagram posts saying, “The Fog has been my anthem. It’s gotten me through the past 5 months, which have been really dark…”
Hana: I have chills as you’re saying that.
JJ: We realized we wanted to have a reach.
Natasha: Did you always know you wanted to do music as a living?
Hana: We hadn’t really considered what we could be building — it was a slow realization. I couldn’t apply for jobs.
JJ: Yeah, I couldn’t do it either — and then we kind of just went for it.
Natasha: What have you learned since leaving the Wesleyan music scene?
Hana: There’s such a culture at Wesleyan as well as in the indie music scene where you’re not supposed to want to get popular — and I get that for a lot of reasons. But as Patti Smith said, you don’t write a book and only want the smart people to read it! Especially when you’re making music and art, you know? Why not try to move people? And that became a really amazing goal for us.
JJ: We both owe so much to the Wesleyan music scene because that’s where we both grew up, but it’s also been really freeing to not be part of it anymore.
Hana: Being a musician is really freaky sometimes because you feel like everything’s already been done. But then the amazing realization is that nobody’s ever been you. You just have to do you. It’s a really beautiful lesson that you learn from being in such a big group of people [making music].
Natasha: Although a lot of the songs are about relationships, there has been a continual toying (or reckoning) with strength and vulnerability; power and intimacy. Do you have a specific intent when writing a song or does it happen organically?
Hana: I think it comes naturally. As far as specifics go, one thing with our lyrics is that we want to say the things that are never said. I’m trying to think of an example of ours – like 23, which is an unreleased song at the moment, but we play it live — there’s one line, “He won’t look at himself in the morning in the mirror as he brushes his teeth.” That’s a really scary, specific image; somebody being alone and not wanting to see themselves in the mirror. We really love imagery like that.
JJ: We haven’t talked about this in a while, but we believe that our songs are already existing in the stratosphere and that we’re pulling and approximating them. That’s how we know when we’ve written the right melody. If it sounds like a lyric you’ve heard somewhere before, it’s no good.
Natasha: Your music has been described as “electro folk soul,” “soultronic,” “folktronica,” and “time soul.” How has your sound developed since your first EP?
JJ: The way we’re going at it has transformed a little — different elements of each of those genres are being extracted now. Because when I think about Nighttime Hunger I think it’s more electronic; but it’s also more and more folk – the lyrics are really folk.
Hana: And then the chorus is very soulful; it’s a repetitive, almost religious refrain. We’re trying to challenge the ways we’re pulling from each genre.
Natasha: In the past, you’ve spoken about the name behind your band: the overcoat is a symbol of armor (protection, power, and security), but it also encapsulates the ambiguity and vulnerability of what lies underneath. And I think Nighttime Hunger really captures those contending elements in the fact that it invites and accepts vulnerability, welcoming the darkness and the light that comes with it.
Hana: I love Nighttime Hunger because the lyrics say the things that are never said, and the things that are hard. This one really feels like we were really pushing ourselves on content. Because it’s true, a lot of [our songs] are about relationships – and certainly this one is as well – but most of all it’s about really scary, introverted moments. It’s actually much more personal because it’s about your relationship to yourself, rather than to another person.
JJ: It’s very vulnerable content wise, but at the same time it’s one of our more aggressive songs–so it’s also fighting that in its form. The form is fighting the content.
Natasha: Exactly — it’s confrontational. The lyrics voice that it’s okay to be vulnerable while the electronic element allows you to deal with the issue head-on. And all together, it becomes a way to persist, saying, “I’m okay with not being okay and this is how I’m going to deal with it.”
JJ: We love a repetitive chorus that’s just drilled at you — at the same time, we want to try and pull electronic music back towards storytelling.
Hana: You could say Walk On and Little Memory are slower, sadder songs, yet Nighttime Hunger has some of the saddest lyrics we’ve written! But because they’re in the form of a rhythmic, pulsing dance song, you find strength in your fear. And that’s something we’ve been really really interested in with electronic music these days, because it does allow you to get this corporeal dancing element — and so all of those vulnerable feelings that we want to write about, when put in dance music, they’re also empowering.
Natasha: You’re set to perform at SXSW (this week!), you’ve been on the NPR stage, you toured in Dublin this summer, and so much more. Were there any specific moments that either solidified or shaped your sound, or transformed the way you view the world?
JJ: Have we written about how our idea of home is each other?
Hana: If we wrote a song about our friendship, it would be cheesy as f*ck! But it’s funny that we’re mentioning that because we’ve totally wrestled with how to write really deep music and also be happy. Basically, we’ve realized all of the time we spent just to live [in Dublin, for example] informed all of our songs. And so now we’ve got to take the time to tour and be really present — observe and have experiences — so we have some meat to write about. And I totally think our lives and the traveling and all the things we do definitely inspire us, but after the fact.
Natasha: Besides New York and SXSW, what’s next? What do you want your sound to be and where do you want to go?
JJ: The sound appears to be evolving naturally and we’re not trying to push it in any one direction, but we’re getting more ambitious.
Hana: Yeah, we’re learning more stuff production-wise. Ideally we’ll be releasing an album — we’ve got a lot of material and we just want to keep writing. We’ve also got some touring planned for the upcoming future…all of it – we want everything.
Natasha: That’s a good thing to know and to vocalize.
Hana: That’s the thing you’re not allowed to say, that you want all of it.
JJ: Yeah, we want it all.
Overcoats will be performing at SXSW this week, so if you’re in and around the area, make your way over to one of their shows (performance times below)!
3/16 – Austin, TX @ Stephen F’s Bar (12am Set)
3/17 – Austin, TX @ Quantum Collective – Whole Foods Rooftop Plaza (2pm Set)
3/19 – Austin, TX @ Sofar Sounds (2pm Set)
3/19 – Austin, TX @ Official Showcase – St David’s Historic Sanctuary (9pm Set)